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Congress Seeks to Establish New Student Data System with College Transparency Act

A new bipartisan bill introduced this week in the United States Senate and House of Representatives aims to increase transparency on higher education outcomes. The College Transparency Act of 2017 proposes a student data reporting system that tracks outcomes such as enrollment, completion and post-college success. It would overturn a ban on federal student-level data collection that came about with the 2008 reauthorization of the Higher Education Act.

Statements from the Senate and House seem to downplay security and privacy issues in favor of the potential to help students make more informed choices about postsecondary education.

"Today's students and their families need accurate, accessible, and comprehensive information in order to choose the college that is the best fit for their individual needs," wrote Senators Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Bill Cassidy (R-La.) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) in a fact sheet on the bill. "Unfortunately, important information about whether or not a particular college or major pays off for students is currently incomplete. For example, despite the vast majority of students citing finding a good job as their primary reason for going to college, there is currently no easy way to evaluate the labor-market success of various programs or majors. Moreover, our current, burdensome reporting system is antiquated; it leaves critical questions unanswered; and it does not reflect the realities of today's students. It's time to modernize the postsecondary data reporting framework in order to more accurately report college outcomes, allowing for greater college transparency for the public, students, families, and policymakers." 

"Education is the single best investment a person can make in today's economy. Students should be empowered to make the decision that's best for them, and that starts with having accurate, credible and accessible information at hand," said Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.) in a news announcement. "We wouldn't expect someone to buy a home without researching their investment first, and higher education should be no different. Students should be able to know which institution will serve them best. Likewise, colleges and universities deserve better data so they know where they're performing well, and where they can make improvements. The College Transparency Act is an important step in that direction."

The bill puts security and privacy protection for the postsecondary student data system in the hands of the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). "Colleges would report data to this new data system … and NCES would be responsible for presenting the information in a user-friendly manner for students and the public, while safeguarding student privacy," according to the fact sheet. "NCES would be able to connect with specified federal agencies in order to report on certain student outcomes. This bill would prohibit a federal college ratings or rankings scheme, while providing important information to researchers and colleges for institutional improvement. The bill would ensure that student information is protected through the following provisions: disclosure limitations, prohibitions on the sale of data, penalties for illegally obtaining information, protections for vulnerable students, prohibition on law enforcement access, and strong limitations on personally identifiable information."

But will that be enough to keep student privacy intact?

"Privacy concerns over both potential misuses of this data and the harms from a possible breach will become a main focus of the bill's debate," predicted Christopher Sadler, education data and privacy fellow for the Open Technology Institute at policy think tank New America. In a recent blog post, Sadler wrote, "With the Office of Personnel Management breach still a fresh memory, a project creating a new federal database of this size will need to demonstrate that it is more than simply complying with regulations. Just as the bill suggests that 'modern, relevant technology' be used to enhance and update the capabilities of the system, the same advice should be followed for privacy and security," he noted. "The benefits of a data system capable of providing students and researchers answers about the worth of higher education would of very high value, but it must be created with a forward-looking stance towards protecting privacy to the highest degree possible."

Proponents of the bill point to two main data reporting areas in dire need of improvement: graduation rates and salary information. "As a result of a ban on student-level data in the Higher Education Act, the federal government has presented students and their families with grossly incomplete information about graduation rates, employment outcomes, and other key information on how students fare at individual institutions," said Peter McPherson, president of the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, in a statement. Many argue that these information gaps keep students from understanding what colleges will best meet their needs.

For example, McPherson pointed out, the federal graduation rate currently only includes students who start and finish at their first institution and attend full-time. "More than half of those who earn a bachelor's degree transfer at some point while 60 percent of students at community colleges attend part-time. Yet these students are not counted as part of the federal graduation rate," he said. "In fact, full-time students who transfer from their first institution and then graduate are actually counted as dropouts from their original school and aren't counted at all at the school to which they transferred. This bill would fix that."

McPherson also calls out the salary data currently reported by the U.S. Department of Education as "another example of extremely misleading information." He explained, "The department reports one figure for an entire institution, failing to account for significant differences among students in different majors. The salary data also includes outcomes for dropouts as well as graduates, obscuring the benefits of earning a degree, and presenting students and their families with misleading data on how graduates fare in the job market."

A number of education-focused organizations, including the Data Quality Campaign, the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, the Association of Community College Trustees, Student Veterans of America and the Institute for Higher Education Policy, have voiced support for the bill. The full text for the Senate bill is available here; the companion House bill is available here.

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